Genial Lego Star Wars creative director Jonathan Smith leads the way along the gravel driveway of an English home. We’re strolling down towards the pastoral HQ of TT Games, the nerve-centre of development for the sequel to 2005’s most successful British videogame, Lego Star Wars, which has sold three and a half million copies to date.
This out-of-town house is unlike any other development office I’ve visited. A whole world of farmland away from the dozens of dowtown office-block studios across the world, TT Games' head office is situated in a cottage in the grounds of a larger house, set between woods and meadows at the foot of the Chilterns to the west of London.
“Of course there are still offices where the work happens,” Jonathan explains as we enter the kitchen-office area. “Traveller’s Tales have about a hundred people in Manchester.” Here, just outside Burnham (a suburban appendix to the concrete-jungles of Slough), Smith and the TT Games MD Tom Stone, along with their lead producers, and the Q&A team (secreted upstairs in the cottage bedrooms), are working towards making the perfect sequel to their franchise-fusing success.
Lego Star Wars came about as the result of a meeting of many different ideas and potentialities; a ‘concatenation of circumstance’, as another, rather more fictional Englishman might have said. TT Games itself is the amalgam of Jonathan Smith and Tom Stone’s Lego spin-off, Giant Entertainment, with the long-standing games development house Traveller’s Tales. The two companies conjoined off the back of the Lego Star Wars project, although Traveller’s Tales is still working on separate projects for other publishers, such Sega’s Super Monkey Ball Adventure.
|Lego Star Wars|
“We are simpatico with Traveller’s Tales,” says Smith. “We were after the same audience, the same games, and so we were naturally integrated.”
Traveller’s Tales, which previously worked on franchises such as A Bug's Life, Toy Story and Crash Bandicoot, has long created games suitable for a younger audience, and they have recently benefited greatly from Giant’s focus and passion on the Lego concept. The ease with which Lego Star Wars comports itself is clearly a testament to the truth of Smith’s belief that the two companies were meant to work together.
“It’s a relationship of love,” Smith laughs. “Everyone has input onto what the game should be, so it’s never a forced marriage. Traveller’s Tales has an awareness of what we should be making and, more importantly, how to do it. Tech and resources is just as important to the company as marketing or any abstract game ideas.”
In its current form TT Games controls all aspects of their work, with Smith and Stone handling much of the abstract game ideas, and most of the marketing, while Traveller’s Tales organises programmers, artists and designers into creating the game content. Smith explains that this new set up allows TT Games retains a huge amount of autonomy.
“Eidos simply handled the distribution on Lego Star Wars," said Smith. "With [Lego Star Wars] 2 it’ll be Activision in the UK and LucasArts in the U.S.”
The fact that these two rather large companies are now interested in the Lego Star Wars concept seems like a reflection of the fact that the game rapidly became hugely important, despite initial scepticism.
“People were unsure,” admits MD Tom Stone, “until they played the demo.”
This lack of certainty was understandable. It was, after all, a difficult idea to digest when you first heard it. The recent Star Wars trilogy turned into a puzzle-heavy action-platform game, but told the medium of classic plastic toy system Lego? The mind was apt to boggle.
“We took the game to what we believed were some fairly skeptical journalists, like Future Publishing’s Edge magazine, and soon there was a crowd surrounding the TV,” recalls Stone. “They called over more and more people to see it.”
Despite concerns, it's clear from reactions like these that the Lego Star Wars concept was also developed with a high degree of confidence and competence. Smith’s own experiences seemed to have lead up to this point – he and Stone had both become involved with the videogame side of Lego after spending time in different aspects of the industry. Stone had come from a senior management position at EA Europe, while Smith had been working as a producer on Codemasters titles such as Severance and Flashpoint. Their time at Lego had been revelatory, and I press Smith to articulate its impact. He talks about being “immersed in toys,” and explains that the attitude Lego had towards their ‘play materials’ has gone a long way to expand his own understand of what it is to play.
“Play has many meanings, and its own semantics. Lego was about nothing less than fun,” says Smith. “And that’s not mere corporate gobbledegook. To be immersed in that and tasked with finding out what games Lego could make was liberating. We meshed that with our own commercial awareness, so it wasn’t just R&D. It was about making something that kids would love to play with.” But, more importantly, Giant Entertainment was really set on making something that everyone could enjoy.
All this came about rather fortuitously for the fledgling team. At the time that Stone and Smith wanted to expand their horizons with the Lego Star Wars project, Lego itself was looking to focus on its plastic toys, and shed its more nebulous businesses, as Stone explained:
“Lego wanted to address the core business, so the theme parks are now owned by Merlin (who run the London Dungeons and other large tourist attractions), because Lego needed to give the parks to the right people. The same was true with videogames.” Giant took that task on, and got stuck into creating a prototype of Lego Star Wars.
“And we knew we had what it took to express Lego interactively,” says Smith.
This expression of plastic toy in sci-fi videogame was never a straightforward problem. Just as development studios like Climax have had to labour to work out how intricately carved Warhammer miniatures should behave in an game environment, TT Games had to overcome the problem of integrating the familiar Star Wars archetypes into the equally familiar plastic universe of the Lego play materials.
“There was a big challenge in making the mini-figure into a videogame character. Animating them makes a videogame character, but it has to be done in a way that makes them a videogame and not a simulation,” says Smith. Watching Princess Leia’s chunky legs strut around suggests that there was as much inspiration as perspiration in making that happen.
This idea of the game not being a simulation is important to Smith. Lego Star Wars is about play, not about building. It is not an attempt to simulate Lego itself.
|Lego Star Wars|
“It’s not a ‘CAD’ experience,” says Smith, when I ask him why there’s no ‘real’ building in Lego Star Wars, but rather a series of puzzles in which pieces assemble themselves. “It’s not a simulation of the plastic Lego experience – it’s the imaginative exercise. It’s exploration. Lego translates differently into the videogame space. It’s not about building, because that becomes frustrating. Of course you can mix things up in the game world, but not in the same way as the real world.”
Smith delivers his key philosophy right here: “We are delivering imagination and not simulation.” What is important to TT Games is delivering something that kids find easy to play with – hence the lack of dialogue or text, and the fluid integration of two-player dynamic throughout. Lego Star Wars was a game that parents could join their kids in playing at any point – an essential aspect of the design that was often only referred to in the most cursory manner by the solo-reviewing games press.
I ask whether TT Games feels a building game is redundant because of things like Second Life. “Second Life makes building flexible,” says Smith. “We made it fun. We’re at the other end of the spectrum. In fact ‘building’ is the wrong word. It’s a creative, customisable experience.”
The concept of building has specific overtones with regards to the idea of Lego, such that Smith felt he needed to liberate the game from them. This sense of liberation can be seen in ideas such as ‘freeplay’, which allows players to drop any character they like into a given situation, as kids might do with their own toys. This idea of creating instant remixes of the standard game is, like many great design ideas, very simple. But it’s also one that doesn’t make sense until you see it working. I certainly dismissed it out of hand until I realised, in-game, that I could sneak into Jabba’s palace by ‘being’ a Gamorrean guard, or have Vader fight himself in the carbonite chamber aboard Cloud City…
As for the reason why he felt that needed to be liberated, well it comes back to play. Lego Star Wars is a game made for kids. It seems a little strange that video games, the medium which had long been seen as ‘kids' toys,’ now sees a game designed specifically for a younger audience as vaguely anomalous. Responding to this Smith says, quite seriously, that he thinks the Lego games are “for the child in all of us.” It’s clear that the TT Games project isn’t just motivated by a desire to make videogames, but by a motivation to make videogames for Smith’s own family. He is the father of three and that seems to define his approach to games.
“We focus on the reactions of children,” says Smith. “Specifically my two boys.”
For Smith, making videogames for a younger audience is a personal matter. This, along with the unique circumstances of TT Games as a whole, seems to have spawned a unique approach to gaming, one that has been appreciated by wide-eyed kids, beleaguered parents, and hardcore gamers alike. They have, quietly and carefully, created a game with genuinely broad appeal.
“Why is this game me?” asks Smith, as we interrogate the perspective of a jaded gamer faced with this playful, sometimes satirical remix of the Star Wars milieu. “Well there’s a depth and freshness to it. It entertained even the hardcore gamer who thought he’d seen it all before.”
It enabled discovery, and poked gentle fun at its subject matter. With the familiar ground of the original trilogy coming to life with Lego Star Wars 2, it’s clearer than ever. The ease with which TT Games are playing around with the franchises becomes even more obvious. It took a big leap to realise that Lego and Star Wars work together in a videogame, but now the mixture seems entirely natural. I wonder how many other franchise hybrids or remixes are just waiting to happen. I realise, watching Smith play, that it’s not just that TT Games wanted to make something fun, but that they’ve intentionally licensed something cool, played with people’s expectations of it, and delivered something that the developers themselves find fun to work with. Perhaps there’s a lesson for publishers and developers here. If the development team find a licence fun, then so will the players who end up interacting with their game.
Nevertheless, I felt a little as if Lego Stars Wars had simply been a trial run, and that the second game will truly realise the subject’s potential. As a final thought I asked Smith if the game had been something of an experiment, especially in light of the mature and impressive scenes I’d witnessed in the development of the forthcoming sequel (Mos Eisley is wonderful)… "No," says Smith, quite firmly. “Fully realised, but 2 is taking it to another level.”
And that other level boasts a Lego Jabba, a Lego Rancor monster, all in a Lego world that manages to be as complete, and far more funny, than all the other Star Wars game that have gone before. And all in a way that’s, y’know, for kids.